Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Aimless Reading:The W's, Part 16 (Nathanael West)

Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust
West, Nathanael
Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust

I have had this book for a long time, though I am not sure how long. There are four possibilities.

1. This is the copy I read in high school.
2. This is the copy I read in college.
3. This is the copy I used to teach high school in New York.
4. All of the above.

If you want to know what I really think of America, read The Day of the Locust. I can't recall another book whose view of this country has so shaped my own. It's a dark, bleak view I grant, but I think it's about as true today as it was when it was written.

I generally don't write about what's inside of these books, but even though I haven't read this book in almost twenty years, several fragmentary images come to mind when I think about it. They are (since I've started making lists already):

1. "Los Angeles is Burning." This is the title of a painting the main character is working on throughout the novel. It represents the not-so-latent violence of all the people who have come to California to discover the easy life.

2. A cockfight. One of the most brutal scenes in the history of literature.

3. The phrase, "The San Berdoo..." short for The San Bernadino Arms, an apartment complex that plays an important role in the book.

4. A nasty child actor.

5. A midget.

6. A riot at a movie premier. This recalls a paper written by one of my high school students. His name was George. He was one of the brightest kids in the school. I had him in my honors English class two years in a row. Something happened between his sophomore and junior year. I don't know what it was, but he completely shut down. He just stopped doing his homework and stopped studying for tests. I was forced to give him lower grades, even though I knew he was bored and could be doing higher level work. I tried talking with him, but to no avail. He would occasionally turn in a half-baked improvisation he'd written on the subway riding to school, but that was about it. When it came time to write the final paper, we had a long talk. I told him I'd give him the extra time he needed, but he really needed to focus and get this paper turned in. My expectations were low at this point. he turned it in several weeks late, but it was worth the wait. It was probably the best paper written by any student I have ever had, high school, college or otherwise. The subject: Day of the Locust. The main point of the paper was to teach them how to write a structured essay, including a thesis, body, & conclusion. George went out and researched the behavior of locusts. His introduction was a delineation of their violent, swarming behavior, which he went on to compare with the riot at the end of the book. You could argue that this is a fairly obvious point. On the other hand, this was before the internet and I gave him no other direction than about how to structure the paper. It was one of the best moments of my teaching career.

7. It occurs to me that the name of the main character, Tod, is significant in a way I hadn't thought of before. The odd spelling with the single 'd' suggests the German cognate, tod, meaning "death."

8. The other memory this book always recalls is the death of Nathaniel West in a car accident on the way to the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

O, the bitter irony.

from The Day of the Locust

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?
Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.
Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

1 comment:

dago red said...

those old "new directions" paperbacks had something wonderful about them tactilely and visually; the black and white, in how they were bound, sorely missing from today's publications.